DIARY OF AN AS­SAS­SIN

EXCLUSIVE REV­E­LA­TIONS ABOUT MAS­TER­MIND SI­VARASAN’S PLOT TO KILL RA­JIV GANDHI

India Today - - FRONT PAGE - By San­deep Un­nithan

In July 1991, LTTE in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tive Jayakumar let CBI’S Spe­cial In­ves­ti­ga­tion Team ( SIT) in on a se­cret. The Sri Lankan Tamil, who was a sus­pect in the May 21, 1991 as­sas­si­na­tion of Ra­jiv Gandhi, told CBI’S chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor, K. Ragothaman, of a hole in the kitchen floor of a Tiger safe house in Chen­nai. Jayakumar, one of sev­eral men planted in safe houses in Tamil Nadu by LTTE’S in­tel­li­gence wing in Septem­ber 1990, didn’t know what was in the hole. But it was clearly very im­por­tant be­cause Si­varasan, 33, the key sus­pect, would fre­quently send him out of the room when­ever he used it. The SIT, set up a day af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion, de­scended on the house on 158 Muthamil Na­gar, Ko­dun­gaiyur, and ripped open the floor.

In­side the damp three-foot deep trench, neatly cut un­der a two foot-by-two foot kitchen tile, was a thick Tamil-English dic­tio­nary with an cav­ity carved in­side to con­ceal a 9 mm pis­tol. There were also two small pocket diaries, a note­book and a fake glass eye. At first, the tiny pages, scrawled in Tamil and English in Si­varasan’s dis­tinc­tive for­ward-slant­ing run­ning hand, didn’t seem to add up to much. It was a jumble of tele­phone num­bers, ad­dresses, con­tact per­sons, aliases, code names and pay­ments.

But each of these en­tries, when care­fully an­a­lysed and fol­lowed up, fit­ted an­other piece into the jig­saw puzzle that had ini­tially baf­fled CBI. The small note­books were a key to un­lock what be­came pos­si­bly the most in­tri­cate as­sas­si­na­tion plot of the 20th century. “The note­books were our most im­por­tant seizures. They showed us how Si­varasan was linked to the other coac­cused,” says Ragothaman.

Si­varasan main­tained these tiny note­books from May 1, 1991, when he landed in Tamil Nadu leading a nine­mem­ber hit squad, right un­til May 23, two days af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion when he hid it and fled with his team to Ban­ga­lore, where he killed him­self to avoid cap­ture.

The pages from these diaries have formed cru­cial court ev­i­dence to im­pli­cate the ac­cused but have never been re­vealed be­fore. The diaries were cru­cial in im­pli­cat­ing all the seven per­sons

SI­VARASAN MAIN­TAINED THESE NOTE­BOOKS FROM MAY 1, 1991, WHEN HE LANDED IN TAMIL NADU UN­TIL MAY 23, TWO DAYS AF­TER THE AS­SAS­SI­NA­TION.

ac­cused of Ra­jiv Gandhi’s as­sas­si­na­tion—Mu­ru­gan, San­than, Per­ari­valan, Nalini, Jayakumar, Ravichan­dran and Robert Payas—now at the cen­tre of a bit­ter po­lit­i­cal stand-off be­tween Tamil Nadu Chief Min­is­ter J. Jay­alalithaa and the Cen­tral Govern­ment. On Fe­bru­ary 24, the Cen­tre moved the Supreme Court against her Fe­bru­ary 18 de­ci­sion to set them free. “We will do what­ever is nec­es­sary legally,” Jay­alalithaa said on how she pro­posed to re­spond to the Cen­tre’s plea to stall the Ra­jiv killers’ re­lease. A cryptic prom­ise of a long tus­sle that will last at least un­til the Lok Sabha polls in May.

Ra­jiv Gandhi’s as­sas­si­na­tion on May 21, 1991, on the eve of the Lok Sabha elec­tion that he fought with Jay­alalithaa as an ally, re­mains In­dia’s

most sen­sa­tional po­lit­i­cal mur­der. The idea was born in the mind of the bat­tlescarred Tamil Tigers’ leader, Velupil­lai Prab­hakaran, who emerged from the jun­gles of Sri Lanka in early 1990. Prab­hakaran wanted re­venge. The In­dian Army’s con­tro­ver­sial three-year de­ploy­ment in the is­land na­tion to en­force the July 1987 In­dia-Sri Lanka Ac­cord had ended. The Army had fought against LTTE, iron­i­cally a group trained by In­dia’s ex­ter­nal in­tel­li­gence agency RAW. The Tamil Tigers had lost hun­dreds of cadre and Prab­hakaran him­self had come close to be­ing killed by the Army at least once.

TIGER TREACH­ERY

Now, it was time for vengeance. The prime min­is­ter, who Prab­hakaran felt had be­trayed him, was out of power and hence, at his most vul­ner­a­ble. Al­most straight­away, CBI in­ves­ti­ga­tors say, he em­barked on his deadly plan. RAW, which still had ties to the Tigers, com­pletely mis­read this sim­mer­ing anger within the LTTE lead­er­ship.

Prab­hakaran and his in­tel­li­gence chief Shan­mu­galingam Si­vashankar, 29, aka ‘Pottu Am­man’ iden­ti­fied three women sui­cide bombers from their Black Tiger sui­cide squad. They en­trusted the plan to Si­varasan aka Paki­achan­dran. The swarthy, thick-set op­er­a­tive who stood only five feet four inches tall, was flu­ent in all south In­dian lan­guages and had lost his left eye in a 1987 fire­fight with Sri Lankan army. He had risen rapidly through the Tamil Tigers’ ranks fol­low­ing his June 1990 raid in Chen­nai to kill Pad­man­abha, leader of pro-In­dia Tamil group Ee­lam People’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Lib­er­a­tion Front, and 13 of his as­so­ciates. It was a clas­sic in­tel­li­gence-led oper­a­tion where Tiger spies em­bed­ded in Chen­nai had ze­roed in on Pad­man­abha. Now, Si­varasan was to not just steer a sui­cide bomber to­wards Ra­jiv Gandhi but also en­sure that the as­sas­si­na­tion was never traced to the Tamil Tigers. It was what is known in in­tel­li­gence terms as a ‘plau­si­bly de­ni­able oper­a­tion’. Like the un­solved 1988 killing of Pak­istan’s Pres­i­dent Zia-ul-Haq in an air­plane ex­plo­sion, the blast would wipe away ev­ery trace of the crime or crim­i­nals.The LTTE lead­er­ship was alarmed by the Congress man­i­festo for the 1991 Lok Sabha polls which spoke of its com­mit­ment to the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan ac­cord. Si­varasan and his hit squad landed in Tamil Nadu on May 1, 1991 and al­most im­me­di­ately set to work. Elec­tions had been no­ti­fied and would be­gin on May 20.

A ‘WED­DING’ IN TAMIL NADU

Ra­jiv Gandhi would al­most cer­tainly cam­paign in Tamil Nadu, where LTTE would strike. Two key people in Si­varasan’s squad were Dhanu, the sui­cide bomber, and Shubha, a back-up bomber. They were par­tic­i­pants in ‘the wed­ding’, the Tigers’ code for the as­sas­si­na­tion. Si­varasan used a ra­dio set and coded com­mu­ni­ca­tions to stay in con­stant touch with the Tamil Tiger base in the jun­gles of Sri Lanka. LTTE cadres like Jayakumar and his brother-in-law Robert Payas had al­ready rented homes in and around Chen­nai. Si­varasan fre­quently switched homes to avoid de­tec­tion even as he looked for a chance to strike at the for­mer prime min­is­ter. His coded trans­mis­sions fre­quently up­dated Prab­hakaran and Pottu Am­man on ‘wed­ding prepa­ra­tions’. The Tigers smug­gled 5 kg gold into Tamil Nadu which Si­varasan sold for Rs 19.36 lakh. This money fi­nanced the en­tire oper­a­tion: Ho­tel rent, pay­ments to in­for­mants and the hit squad’s travel and liv­ing ex­penses for about two months. Si­varasan noted tele­phone num­bers, re­minders for cru­cial ap­point­ments with con­spir­a­tors and pay­ments made to them. His op­er­a­tives got their first break-

through when they gained ac­cess to the in­ner cir­cle of the late Mara­gatham Chan­drasekar, Congress par­lia­men­tar­ian from Sripe­rum­budur, a Lok Sabha con­stituency nearly 40 km north of Chen­nai, and a close fam­ily friend of the Gandhi fam­ily.

THE DELHI PLOT

Si­varasan also scrawled de­tails of a sec­ond plot in his diaries. This was the LTTE’S back-up plan in case his sui­cide bombers missed Ra­jiv in Tamil Nadu. On April 28, Athi­rai, a slim, strik­ing 18-year-old girl with a mop of curly hair, landed at the clan­des­tine Tiger port of Ko­di­akarai in Tamil Nadu from Jaffna. She was es­corted to a safe house in Chen­nai where she would wait for LTTE to roll out Plan B: To kill Ra­jiv Gandhi in his own back­yard, New Delhi. Athi­rai had been cho­sen not for the irony of her LTTE name, So­nia, but ap­par­ently for her light skin that would al­low her to blend with the crowd in New Delhi. Si­varasan had al­ready re­cruited Kana­gasaba­p­a­thy, a re­tired Sri Lankan govern­ment ser­vant, for this task. Kana­gasaba­p­a­thy, in his late 70s, was the fa­ther of a de­ceased LTTE com­man­der.

Now the most se­nior mem­ber of the plot trav­elled to Delhi and con­nected with an LTTE sym­pa­thiser as­so­ci­ated with a prom­i­nent Tamil Nadu politi­cian, MDMK chief Vaiko. The duo lo­cated a safe house in the Cap­i­tal for their mis­sion: House num­ber A 233 in north Moti Bagh. LTTE iden­ti­fied it through a real es­tate bro­ker in nearby Shanti Nike­tan. The two-room Cen­tral govern­ment quar­ter, il­le­gally sub­let by its al­lot­tee, of­fered the per­fect cover. It was lo­cated in the sprawl of sin­gle­storey govern­ment ac­com­mo­da­tion in the heart of the na­tional cap­i­tal and was just eight km away from Ra­jiv Gandhi’s 10 Jan­path home.

Kana­gasaba­p­a­thy paid Rs 5,000 as ad­vance to the bro­ker. “My grand­daugh­ter will come and stay here in a few days,” he told the bro­ker. Athi­rai, he said, wanted to study Hindi and com­puter ap­pli­ca­tions in the Cap­i­tal. Though Si­varasan had cre­ated a sep­a­rate hit squad for the Delhi plot, he was con­fi­dent of as­sas­si­nat­ing the for­mer prime min­is­ter in Tamil Nadu. Pottu Am­man favoured Delhi. “Why don’t we try Delhi?” he asked Si­varasan in a coded mes­sage in May 1991. “I am con­fi­dent that I can do it here (in Tamil Nadu),” Si­varasan replied. But Pottu Am­man over­ruled him and in­sisted he con­tinue with the Delhi oper­a­tion.

ATHI­RAI HAD BEEN CHO­SEN NOT FOR THE IRONY OF HER LTTE NAME, SO­NIA, BUT FOR HER LIGHT SKIN WHICH WOULD AL­LOW HER TO BLEND IN DELHI.

The Delhi plot was aban­doned be­cause the Tamil Tigers were suc­cess­ful in Sripe­rum­budur. Kana­gasaba­p­a­thy and Athi­rai were ar­rested from a ho­tel in Pa­har­ganj in June 1991 as they at­tempted to flee to Nepal. They were re­leased in 1999 af­ter an eight-year jail term be­cause the Supreme Court did not link them to the Sripe­rum­budur plot. They mi­grated to Switzer­land.

The plot was left un­fin­ished but it told the in­ves­ti­ga­tors of LTTE’S fa­nat­i­cal de­ter­mi­na­tion to as­sas­si­nate Ra­jiv Gandhi. “Once Prab­hakaran gave the or­der to kill Ra­jiv,” says Ragothaman, “it was dif­fi­cult for him to es­cape.”

AT­TACK IN SRIPE­RUM­BUDUR

On May 21, the squad boarded a state trans­port bus to the venue of Ra­jiv Gandhi’s poll rally and gained ac­cess to the lightly-guarded venue. Si­varasan was dis­guised as a jour­nal­ist in a white kurta-py­jama and car­ried a cloth bag over his shoul­der and a notepad in his hand. Dhanu wore a loose-fit­ting greenand-or­ange sal­war kameez. Dur­ing the hour-long jour­ney to Sripe­rum­budur, Nalini re­coiled in hor­ror when Dhanu asked her to feel what was un­der her

clothes.There were no metal de­tec­tors and no frisk­ing at the venue. Nalini was con­fi­dent, ar­tic­u­late. A post­grad­u­ate in English, she worked as the per­sonal as­sis­tant of an ex­ec­u­tive at a pri­vate firm in Chen­nai and had fallen in love with Mu­ru­gan. She and Subha es­corted the hu­man bomb Dhanu.

At twenty min­utes past 10 p.m., Ra­jiv Gandhi walked down a red coir

SIT EX­AM­INED 1,044 WIT­NESSES, 10,000 PAGES OF WIT­NESS STATE­MENTS, AS MANY AS 1,477 DOCUMENTS PRO­DUCED IN COURT AND 1,180 OB­JECTS.

car­pet laid at the tem­ple grounds at Sripe­rum­budur. He was ex­hausted from a hec­tic cam­paign­ing tour across Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. He was wel­comed by an en­thu­si­as­tic crowd of sup­port­ers. Among them was San­than, stub­ble-faced, in white and sport­ing Congress’ trade­mark tri­colour around his neck. Dhanu gar­landed Ra­jiv with a san­dal­wood neck­lace and bent down as if to touch his feet. She flicked a switch on the right side of her gar­ment to trig­ger off half-kilo plas­tic ex­plo­sives in her bomb jacket. The blast in­stantly killed Ra­jiv Gandhi as well as 17 oth­ers around him. In the melee, Si­varasan and his hit squad melted away. D.R. Karthikeyan, an IPS of­fi­cer who led the SIT that even­tu­ally solved the case, calls it “cun­ning in con­cep­tion, metic­u­lous in plan­ning and ruth­less in ex­e­cu­tion”.

ACAMERAAND DIARIES

The as­sas­si­na­tion would have gone off ex­actly as it had been planned but for one crit­i­cal clue: Harib­abu’s 35 mm Chi­non cam­era. Harib­abu, a pho­tog­ra­pher hired by Si­varasan, had died in the blast. His last pho­to­graphs re­cov­ered by po­lice re­vealed Si­varasan and the en­tire as­sas­si­na­tion squad. By July 1991, Karthikeyan’s SIT had rounded up most of the key sus­pects. The chase cul­mi­nated in a sin­gle-storeyed house in Ko­nanakunte on the out­skirts of Ban­ga­lore. It was sur­rounded but the en­tire LTTE as­sas­si­na­tion team killed them­selves on Au­gust 19.

Si­varasan had left his diaries in the Chen­nai safe house two days af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion, tak­ing only the 9 mm pis­tol. He was con­fi­dent of re­turn­ing to re­claim the diaries. With com­man­dos clos­ing in, Si­varasan shot him­self in the head with the pis­tol. The SIT also found a heap of ashes, burnt film neg-

atives and documents. Many of these were step-by-step pic­tures of Dhanu wear­ing noth­ing but her lethal belt bomb. SIT ex­am­ined 1,044 wit­nesses, more than 10,000 pages of wit­ness state­ments, as many as 1,477 documents pro­duced in court as ev­i­dence and 1,180 ma­te­rial ob­jects pro­duced in court dur­ing the trial which be­gan in Jan­uary 1994. Among them were Si­varasan’s diaries.

Why would LTTE op­er­a­tives leave be­hind a wealth of doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence? SIT in­ves­ti­ga­tors point at LTTE’s ob­ses­sive need for pro­pa­ganda and doc­u­men­ta­tion of their strug­gle. It had a well-de­vel­oped ‘Nitharsanam’ bat­tle­field cam­era unit that filmed and pho­tographed their cadres in ac­tion. “The group kept metic­u­lous ac­counts of all their fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions and used the pho­to­graphs for mo­ti­vat­ing their

IT WAS TAMIL TIGERS’ OB­SES­SIVE NEED FOR DOC­U­MEN­TA­TION OF THEIR ARMED STRUG­GLE THAT WOULD UN­RAVEL THEIR DEADLY AS­SAS­SI­NA­TION PLOT.

cadres,” Ragothaman says. It was this com­pul­sive need for doc­u­men­ta­tion that would un­ravel their deadly plot.

The as­sas­si­na­tion also sealed Prab­hakaran’s fate. It ended the use of Tamil Nadu as a Tiger sanc­tu­ary. In May 2009, LTTE cadres were en­cir­cled and its lead­er­ship, in­clud­ing Prab­hakaran and Pottu Am­man, de­stroyed by the Sri Lankan army. This hap­pened even as In­dia was busy with a Lok Sabha elec­tion. The sur­viv­ing LTTE cadres had min­gled among civil­ian refugees cor­ralled into a shrink­ing no-fire zone in north­east­ern Sri Lanka. Iron­i­cally, the fate of Prab­hakaran’s sur­viv­ing foot soldiers is poised to be­come an is­sue on the eve of an­other gen­eral elec­tion in In­dia.

Fol­low the writer on Twit­ter @San­deep­Un­nithan

CHIEF PLOT­TER SI­VARASAN

MAY 21, 1991, 10.20 P.M. LTTE op­er­a­tive San­than, dis­guised as a Congress worker, fetes Ra­jiv Gandhi mo­ments be­fore he was as­sas­si­nated by a sui­cide bomber in

Sripe­rum­budur. San­than is one of seven ac­cused who could walk free.

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